The mainstream media likes to occasionally publicize statistics demonstrating an ever-widening income/wealth gap. This is usually either in response to some left-wing talking head (Obama) mentioning it in a speech, or, it is simply a slow news day and nothing whips the masses into a frenzy like giving them the impression they are somehow being cheated out of their “fair share” of the economic pie, “yeah, let’s stick it to those evil rich people!” Yeah, grandma and grandpa are pretty evil, aren’t they? That’s the little tidbit they leave out of these numbers, although it is one that should be obvious: old people have lived longer than the rest of us, therefore they’ve had more to time to accumulate wealth and the work experience that allows them to demand higher wages. Duh. If the relative proportion of the aged in this country were constant the effect of age on relative changes in income distribution would be nil. But, the proportion of the aged is not constant, it is increasing. The “baby boomers”, the largest single age demographic in this country, are getting older. What do we get when we put those two together? We see a growing demographic that is increasingly earning and accruing more and more wealth. And how would we expect an increasing proportion of increasingly wealthy elderly to effect wealth distribution statistics? That’s right…a growing statistical disparity when people are lumped into wealth brackets that ignore age.
I’m not suggesting age is the sole contributor to changes in wealth/income disparities (increased productivity being another important factor) but it is obviously a major influence considering the overall “greying” of America (see US Census site and compare 1990 v 2025). And it is not merely the size of the group. The financial savvy of today’s “elderly” coupled with an increasingly productive economy have led to a poverty rate among those 65 and older one-third of what it was in 1967 (11% down from 33%). This is HALF the rate for those under 35 (22%). Bear in mind Social Security had been paying the elderly benefits since 1937, so it apparently wasn’t all that effective if the poverty rate was still 33% after 30 years of operation. We as a society need to shed the idea that old=poor and that Social Security is the only thing that stands in the way of grandma turning tricks for her next meal.
So what is the point? It is not to pick on the “age challenged”, but rather to point out that social benefits and tax policy based merely on age, race, or gender make no sense. They are inherently discriminatory insofar as such policies assume ALL in some demographic must be poor or disadvantaged in some way. If we must* have a government run social safety net or constituency-pandering tax breaks they should be means tested at the individual level, not group level. In other words, property tax breaks for the elderly: bad, but, property tax breaks based on income, good. Social Security based on age: bad, but Social Security based on need, good (I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader as to how one should objectively define an inherently subjective concept like “need” – Warning, your head may explode).
We are a nation of individuals, not groups. We owe it to ourselves to evaluate need at the individual level, not the “group” level, else every self-entitled special interest group lobby will bankrupt this country as each group jockeys to live at the expense of every other group.
* Just not to leave anyone with the wrong impression here, I do not believe government is the most efficient vehicle by which assistance and charity can be distributed to those that truly need it, therefore I am in no way advocating a government run “safety-net”. I am merely suggesting that since it is politically unlikely that we will as a society unburden ourselves with the ponzi-esque social safety net we have established, the least we can do is force the government to run it more efficiently and effectively. Private charities do a fine job of that now and could do so much more were the government to get out of the way, lower the tax burden on the “wealthy” so they could give even more and allow the efficiencies of the market (good charities survive, bad ones go away) to provide needed help.